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Britain's Secrets Act Hurts Public

September 06, 1987|Phillip Knightley | Phillip Knightley is author of "The Second Oldest Profession: Spies & Spying in the 20th Century" (Norton)

LONDON — In all the brouhaha over "Spycatcher," the best-selling memoirs of Peter Wright, one-time assistant to the director general of MI-5, the main lesson is in danger of being overlooked--Britain's desperate need for a Bill of Rights. Until now it has usually been assumed by other countries that in Britain, a bastion of Western democracy, a citizen has the same rights as those guaranteed by, say, the U.S. Constitution. It has come as something of a shock, therefore, to learn that the British press has no automatic freedom to publish and the British citizen no automatic right to information vital to his well being.

This is why "Spycatcher" can be bought in any American book shop, but not a British one. This is why American newspapers can debate the importance of the book's content, but a British paper would risk crippling fines and maybe the jailing of the editor if it attempted to do so.

This is why the British media are not allowed to report crucial parts of the continuing legal action in Australia where the British government has taken the book's publishers to court to prevent them from publishing it there.

This is why--in an intriguing role reversal--an issue of Pravda has been banned in Britain because of what it said about Wright and "Spycatcher."

One book makes the news but it is not the only example of how the lack of any constitutional right to publish has deprived British citizens of information they might need to regulate their society.

Jock Kane, a former employee of GCHQ (the British equivalent of the National Security Agency) has for years been trying to reveal what he claims is widespread corruption in the organization. His book on the subject was seized by Special Branch police officers and a still photograph of GCHQ headquarters was banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, leaving a blank screen in the middle of a current affairs program.

A book called "One Girl's War," the memoirs of a woman MI-5 officer, has been banned, even though it deals mainly with a woman's love for a fellow officer during World War II. Justifying the ban, a government spokesman said that if a diary of an MI-5 officer's experiences in, say, India, in 1912 were to turn up in someone's attic, the government would still do it's best to prevent publication on principle.

Special Branch officers raided the offices of the BBC and seized the master tapes of a television series that criticized Britain for having a government obsessed by secrecy. They took away vanloads of documents relating to the program, broke down the door of the house occupied by the program maker and removed files in an effort to discover his sources.

Anthony Cavendish, a former officer of the British Secret Intelligence Service--the equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency--has written a book critical of shortcomings in the service, but he has been warned that if he attempts to publish it he could face criminal prosecution.

Even while the British public is deprived of serious and important information, Fleet Street's gutter press is free to publish an amazing amount of rubbish, some of it total fiction. The Sun, for example, has made up interviews with the widows of war heroes and barged into hospitals where victims of ghastly road accidents lie injured. Members of the royal family smart under a barrage of invented stories about their personal lives.

This nonsensical contradiction--a press that appears free to publish only valueless information--would end if Britain had a Bill of Rights with a clause along the lines of the American First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of expression, and another clause, again modeled on U.S. law, protecting a citizen's right to reasonable privacy.

At one stroke this would enable the quality press to raise serious matters for serious debate and, at the same time, prevent the gutter press from invading an ordinary citizen's privacy. It would also help mute the Draconian Official Secrets Act which is behind much of the censorship that goes on in Britain.

This act makes it a criminal offense, punishable by imprisonment, for anyone to pass or receive an official secret--defined as whatever the government says is secret. Almost every government employee, from keeper in the Royal Parks to clerks in the Inland Revenue Service are required to sign this act that lasts for life.

Consider what would have happened to "Spycatcher" and the Official Secrets Act if Britain had a Bill of Rights. If the government felt that "Spycatcher" threatened national security and sought an injunction to prevent it from being published, the judge considering the application would be able to weigh the freedom to publish against any danger to the national interest. All would know where they stood. Everyone's rights would be protected.

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